“Black is the colour of my true love’s hair. Black is the colour of my love so fair. Black is her body so firm, so bold. Black is her beauty, her soul of gold… I remember when she said to me, “don’t ever look behind”. She said “look ahead” and I would see someone always loving me. A picture is painted in my memory without a colour of despair.” Nina Simone
This is the song that came to mind when I first saw Jemma Davies’ charcoal painting Shompole. I was scouting for definitions or illustrations of beauty that make us question our knowledge and use of the word and voilà!
Just to give a general description of this work; here we see the main subject of the painting being a Woman holding a baby. She is adorned in beautiful traditional jewellery and wears a ‘leso-like’ apparel. The baby is clothed in light-coloured attire and is oh-so-adorably sucking on its finger. There’s a hint of vegetation in the background. The colours in the painting are mostly alternating varieties of grey, black and white.
I suppose Jemma’s decision to use charcoal for this painting is a neat ingredient that brilliantly brings out a softness in the subject’s nature; a gentle tenderness that is not emphasized enough in many representations of black women. It doesn’t however obscure her boldness, which is told by her definitive facial structure, her jawline and her cheekbones. The latter shows Jemma’s appreciation of a wider context within which her subject’s existence is cradled. The name of the painting and her ornaments suggests that she is perhaps from Shompole conservancy which is located south of the Great Rift Valley. Its climate is mostly dry and hot and the communities in that area are historically nomadic.
Jemma hints at these conditions by presenting the very scarce vegetation in the background; the bareness of the background dotted by trees that have minimal or no leaves. But she is careful to retain these details as peripheral to avoid them seeping into the larger part of the narrative which would in turn the exotize the Woman and her baby. I like that kind of storytelling to be honest. An acknowledgement that due to her geographical placement the subject’s life is no bed of roses, but keeping our focus on the subject as a Woman and a Mother.
The young healthy toddler peacefully nested in its mother’s bosom is also in the foreground of this painting. The baby appears healthy, going by its chubby face and arm, as well as clean and calm. This is of course quite contrary to the many images of children depicted from similar regions presenting them as malnourished, dirty and desperate. Jemma tells us the story of the ‘Other’- the subaltern; and here, we see that in this difference there’s contentment and belonging, as can be inferred from the baby’s own comfortable and still disposition.
The subject’s facial expression is reflective, pensive, looking into the distance as if her thoughts materialize somewhere beyond what we can see. The youngling follows its mother’s gaze curiously seeking a preview. A superstitious me, imagines a communication between mother and child especially when their bodies are touching that goes beyond language and words, that is passed on discreetly but whose understanding remains clear only between the two. I find that happening in this depiction.
I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t quote one of my favourite artists; Wangechi Mutu says that “Females carry the Marks, Language and nuances of their culture more than the male”. I guess this explains my obvious assumption of the Subject as female. Her beautiful ornaments, as seen on her ear, neck and arms combined with her patterned garb (whose colours I can imagine even if they are not visually represented) showcase an infusion of culture and history. They consequently tell of a philosophy which by which she defines herself and would wish to pass on to her child as evidenced by the jewellery draped around the baby’s neck.
And so I found an alternative definition of beauty, one that acknowledges womanhood but does not saturate it with sexual undertones; one that emphasizes on the metaphysical and its manifestation in the spiritual connection between generations – as seen with these two subjects. It extends the meaning and memory of beauty, contradicting its mainstream use in our capitalistic society that sees it as a determinant of the general worth of persons.
Jemma Davies is a 30 year old Kenyan artist. Check out her full bio and more of her work here